29-Aug-2011

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri


Rating - Read

The first time I read Jhumpa Lahiri, it was right after her ‘Interpreter of Maladieshad become famous. The book had opened to rave reviews, Lahiri won the Pulitzer, and she was also very attractive to boot. Everyone was reading her. I read the first story which tried landscaping a relationship no-man’s land and did not get it at all. I dismissed her as yet another Indian writer who was riding the India wave.

So, when R gifted me Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, I let it rest in my book cupboard for a few years. Late last week, on a lark, I brought it out of the back row and dusted the top and killed a couple of tiny bugs that crawled out. I sat down to read.

And read. And read. Interrupted by office and some welcome visitors.

Lahiri’s oeuvre had changed very little. This collection of short stories was also about Indian Americans, specifically Bengalis. Perhaps it was I who had changed in the more than ten years that had elapsed and could appreciate all the nuances that had gone into the stories.

The stories are all about the second generation of Bengali immigrants, touching upon their lives and the life of their parents seen through their eyes. The challenges faced by the parents, who had moved to the land of dreams, largely on their academic merit and who still try to clutch at their roots is portrayed quite well. The second generation, which is more American than Bengali, but still ill-at-ease with sharing their entire truth of their double personalities with their parents, is also captured nicely.

The writing flows smoothly and sometimes is a little melancholic. The observations are quite spot on and don’t miss the smallest things. The characters are not stereotypes from Bollywood movies and even in the generic issues of each generation; there is a broad spectrum of people and problems.

I finally finished the book yesterday in perfect settings yesterday – a rainy Sunday with nothing to do and a wind howling outside the window by my comfortable sofa.

One of things I have learnt in my reading life is that it is just not the right time to read some books. Either you are too old for it or you have still not grown into it. Which is why, I am glad I kept my copy of this book (and of course R – because you gifted it!).

Well worth a read.

(SPOILER ALERT. Following bit for people who have read the book)

The last three inter-connected stories were pretty good and I was waiting rather eagerly for the end, prepared for both a happy and a sad ending. What I did not anticipate till just before it came was the natural disaster playing a role! Given how much this kind of ending has been milked, it just fell too flat for me. Perhaps if I had read it when the Tsunami killing off people still had novelty value, I would have been more impressed.






7 comments:

Archana said...

I think I read this book during the aftermath of the tsunami time-frame. So I kinda suspected the ending. But it fell flat for me too (I know real people died that way but it happening in a book seemed too cinematic to me!!).

I liked the collection of short stories and thus I then picked up "The Namesake". Till date, according to me, Gogol (Namesake's protagonists) is one of the most annoying literary characters ever created!

Anita said...

Archana - yeah, the end was too gimmicky for this author to pull off.

hAAthi said...

Althought I havent read this one, I find this category of Indian writing far too cliche. All those typical "Namesake" stereotypes come into play, and while it was nice reading it the first time around, to go into the same details over and over seems painful and melancholic. Woman marries NRI man, moves to the States, is bored and homesick, has baby because there is little else to do.. Slightly bugging after a point no?
That said, your review does make me want to give this one a shot.

Anita said...

hAAthi - I know what you mean! I think in this collection of short stories, there was a lot of perspective from the second generation and that stopped it being cliched.

Soma said...

i read this book in 2008 and thought it was very insightful about life! she is one of my favorite writers and have enjoyed each of her earlier books greatly. it is interesting to see your perspective as i always thought it had so many bong nuances that it may not appeal to others as much (..something like rabindrasangeet). unaccustomed earth was her darkest book and that is saying a lot as she is pretty dark from chapter 1 of her 1st book interpreter of maladies....that just proves she is totally bong!

Soma said...

i read this book in 2008 and thought it was very insightful about life! she is one of my favorite writers and have enjoyed each of her earlier books greatly. it is interesting to see your perspective as i always thought it had so many bong nuances that it may not appeal to others as much (..something like rabindrasangeet). unaccustomed earth was her darkest book and that is saying a lot as she is pretty dark from chapter 1 of her 1st book interpreter of maladies....that just proves she is totally bong!

Anita said...

Soma - I quite liked the bong nuances in the book. That is her strong point and luckily she sticks to that.